The end of the world? In his new film, Melancholia, Lars von Trier tries to imagine just that. But Melancholia goes beyond the typical populism of the disaster movie—the callous rich mending their ways because of a massive quake or a bad volcano.
The film's first half wittily observes a wedding so pungent with lucre as to pale the Kardashians. The setting is a lakeside chalet in Sweden. Kirsten Dunst is Justine, a bride whose boss (Stellan Skarsgard at his most swinish) is the father of the groom. Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), shell out beaucoup bucks for the big event.
Why, on the happiest day of her etc., has Justine gone feral with sadness, hiding from the company, ducking her husband to go pee on the lawn of the golf course? The second half reveals why. There's cosmic trouble, which some are willfully ignoring, with a newly discovered planet. Some suggest this new globe is in a dance-of-death orbit with Earth. It's named, for some linguistically indefensible reason, "Melancholia."
With her particular cross of intensity and impassivity, Dunst is the least like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale sufferer of any of von Trier's heroines—and the most like an imprisoned woman forcing her way out.
In Melancholia's second part, the estate is cleared of guests and staff, and the two sisters try their best to function as the inevitable starts to occur. And there is the consolation, unusual in von Trier, of a child, Justine's nephew (Cameron Spurr).
Does von Trier feel life itself is evil? That seemed to be the idea in Antichrist. And yet Melancholia itself is much easier to take seriously because of its clarity and stillness, and because of Dunst's wistful, frightening acting. Von Trier is probably a madman, but every madman has at least one lucid argument in him.
'Melancholia' opens Friday, Nov. 18, at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.